Background

As elsewhere in northern Chile, there was a widespread and highly developed network of pre-Hispanic cultures in this region. The geoglyphs at sites such as Pintados and Tiliviche are thought to have been markers for caravans of traders making their way from the altiplano to the coast and back again. Circles marked in the hillsides signalled the presence of water. The coastal peoples traded furs and fish with the more highly developed cultures of the interior, maintaining links with Tiahuanaco and the Incas.

Even after the Spanish conquest, the early Spanish settler population was small in number. Settlement was concentrated largely in the oases of the sierra, where the climate was easier and where malaria, the scourge of the coast, was not found. From an early date, Arica became one of the principal ports for the silver trade from Potosí, but the coast remained sparsely inhabited until the 19th century. At the time of Independence, the whole of this area became the Peruvian provinces of Tarapacá and Arica, with the provincial capital at the now ruined city of Tarapacá, near Huara. The region became the focal point for the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), with decisive naval battles fought at Iquique on 21 May 1879, and at Angamos, near Mejillones, on 8 October of the same year. After the war, the area as far north as Tacna came under Chilean control, and became the country's economic powerhouse following the sudden growth of the nitrate industry.

The poor conditions of workers in the nitrate mines led to the development of early left-wing and trade unionist movements in the far northern part of Chile. In 1907, a group of miners from one of the nitrate
oficinas
was executed by the army in the Santa María school in Iquique for campaigning to be paid in hard cash instead of
oficina
tokens. The legacy of the far north's radicalism can be seen in the now infamous 'caravan of death' executed in seven northern cities by one of General Pinochet's henchmen in the days following the 1973 coup .

The region's borders were finally delineated in 1929: Tacna voted in a referendum to return to Peru, while Arica opted to remain Chilean. The collapse of the nitrate industry in the 1930s and 1940s was a regional crisis but the quick growth of the fishing industry saved the area from disaster.

The sea still provides the main source of wealth in this region: Iquique is the principal fishing port in Chile, unloading 35% of the total national catch, and has important fish- processing industries. Nowadays, mining is much less important than in other parts of northern Chile; however, silver and gold are mined at Challacollo and copper at Sagasca, near Tarapacá, while the new copper mine at Collahuasi has made a big difference to the region's economy. Over 90% of the population lives in the two coastal cities, Arica and Iquique.

Geography and climate

The Atacama Desert extends over most of the far north. The Cordillera de la Costa slowly loses height north of Iquique, terminating at the Morro in Arica: from Iquique northwards it drops directly to the sea and, as a result, there are few beaches along this coast. Inland, the central depression, the
pampa
, 1000 to 1200 m high, is arid and punctuated by salt flats south of Iquique. Between Iquique and Arica, it is crossed from east to west by numerous gorges, formed by several rivers flowing west from the sierra; the more northerly of these, the Ríos Lluta and San José, provide water for Arica and for the Valle de Azapa. The source of the former is snowmelt from Volcán Tacora. Its sulphurous waters can only support crops such as corn, alfalfa and onions. In contrast the San José brings crystal fresh water from the altiplano to the Azapa Valley which is well known for its olive crop and tropical fruit. On the coast, temperatures are moderated by the Pacific Ocean but, in the
pampa,
variations of temperature between day and night are extreme, ranging between 30°C and 0°C. Coastal regions receive
camanchaca
(sea mist) but the
pampa
is permanently rainless.

East of the central depression lies the sierra, the western branch of the Andes, beyond which is a high plateau, the
altiplano
(3500-4500 m), from which rise volcanic peaks, including Parinacota (6350 m), Pomerape (6250 m), Guayatiri (6064 m), Acotango (6050 m), Capurata (5990 m), Tacora (5988 m) and Tarapacá (5825 m). There are also a number of lakes in the altiplano, the largest of which, Lago Chungará, is one of the highest in the world. The main river draining the altiplano, the Río Lauca, flows eastwards into Bolivia. Temperatures in the sierra average 20°C in summer and 9°C in winter. The altiplano is much colder, averaging just 10°C in summer and -5°C in winter. Both the sierra and the altiplano are affected by storms of rain, snow and hail (
invierno boliviano
), usually between January and March.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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